On July 24th regular contributor to this site, Graham Goldsmith attended the final Westminster Faith Debate entitled ‘Religion in Public Life’. Below is his review of the debate along with some concluding thoughts. You can find more details on the event and press reviews at the Religion and Society Research Programme and Theos websites. At the end of this post is an edited highlights video of the event.
The final Westminster faith debate held at Central hall took place amid tight security and a vocal Anti Tony Blair protest outside was introduced by Charles Clarke M.P. and Programme director professor Linda Woodward
Joining Tony Blair in discussion were Charles Moore former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The evening brought together many themes from the previous six debates from a media, state, and church perspective. The programme has already been used for teaching and research and despite initial scepticism had satisfied a growing interest in Religion and its place in society. It had raised the level of public debate to begin an ongoing dialogue that should serve as useful for public education and inform politicians in policy making.
Charles Moore felt the role of the national media was to create a properly argumentative climate in which debate could take place and that the Bible is in some sense a great piece of extended journalism. He noted that Christians in recent times had been inhibited from speaking out about faith or acting in line with conscience. Parliaments and secular minded judges had become more hostile to religious precepts and that some extremely difficult areas had arisen around equality rights particularly with regard to homosexuality.
Despite not being perfect he felt that religion provided ”social glue” and that we should not forget our religious history including its role in establishing the innate dignity of human beings and reconnect ourselves fully with those rights. We needed to ask should some rights trump others? Especially considering that religious motivation is significant.
Tony Blair believed that exclusive truth claims and particularly attempts to impose them were a recipe for social division and cited some unpleasant examples of such in Christian history. More recently the Church of England had been a great buffer for social tensions but with the event of multiculturalism and a more political expression of secularism this has been harder to maintain in the changing market place of ideas.
We need to have a debate around conflict and controversy particularly as some believe that religion should be a private matter. We need to value and appreciate work in religion. We should seek to harmonise toward a ”religion friendly democracy” and ”democracy friendly religion” and find a framework to resolve any clash of rights. People of faith should speak up and speak out, tell people about the work that is done, and engage and reach out to others to inhabit the space of our common humanity.
Blair quoted that error has no rights but that erroneous people do have rights and we need to show grace toward others regardless of circumstance.
Rowan Williams felt the Church was still working well in localities and was still the place where people focused their feelings in times of suffering and celebration and gave the recent example of the London riots as to how the church had rallied round. Outreach was still good, Aid and development was on the increase, Christians still remain active in their local communities and the Church is still able to broker multi-faith dialogue because it is still viewed as a tolerant place despite differences, a place where other denominations feel safe. People still know what the church is there for.
We need a partnership between state and faith, he called for joint responsibility but believed there should also be an opt out for people in matters of conscience.
We should have substantive and qualitative arguments rather than emotive ones pointing out that the Church has a history of wisdom and we need not change just for the sake of it ,particularly as many of the historic debates are being recycled. We must ask these important questions again to find peace and the right balance.
A numbers of questions were then asked from the floor. Subjects ranged from Gambling Super Casinos, the role of the lords spiritual and women bishops the place of Islam, particularly Sharia law in a democratic society, faith schools and the political gesture of presenting each school with a King James Bible, the effect of militant secularism on society and the moral case for engaging with ”democracy hostile” religious groups and why religion should be considered relevant at all as the laws of science had disproved God.
In response –Tony Blair remained in favour of super casinos whilst Archbishop Rowan could see no value in building one particularly in a deprived area of Manchester, calling the very idea bizarre. Tony Blair felt that no new arguments had been presented in the discussion about women bishops whilst the Archbishop felt that the debate rightly was ongoing.
In wanting to encourage peace and inclusiveness it was recognised that dealing with entrenched people who do not want to talk is problematic. It was felt that an outright ban on difficult religious groups was not helpful, that we needed to show self restraint and humility to enter into inter faith dialogue that recognised other views and traditions and use different types of engagement to allow the moderates to inform the extremes.
The distribution of the King James bible was felt essential for history and as literature (even Richard Dawkins agrees), but more importantly the wisdom within it needed proper interpretation and understanding and faith schools were felt useful not least because of their ethical framework.
In answer to science making God obsolete, Christianity was not seen as science nor as conflicting with the scientific world view. The resurrection is not a debate about science but rather what faith and hope does for the human condition not least the emotional connection with God.
It was felt that the downside of militant secularism was the growth of relativism which was responsible for the erosion of objective truth, that we were in danger of assuming that morality is self evident as a kind of default setting, mainly because public morality is now being informed by a number of different sources. We need to state clearly that there is such a thing as objective truth.
My concluding thoughts: The final debate was more conversational than controversial and tended to confirm my initial feelings that these debates were mainly about encouraging the Christian / Religious ethic for the purposes of social capital akin to the Big Society agenda. Tony Blair’s view that there should be a kind of religious ”third way” seemed to echo this.
In his view there are two types of religious people: 1) Ones who are engaged in acts of service and compassion and 2) others whose faith becomes their identity with which to exclude others. I found the attempt to polarise and define religious people in this way interesting albeit simplistic and it illustrated how Christian values can be subtly shaped and defined by political and social pressure.
The central problems facing religious people in public life were rather skirted over. Archbishop Rowan felt that reported problems encountered by Christians were insignificant in terms of numbers and that we should neither overreact nor adopt a victim posture, but is this a denial of the trend and how the law is now being interpreted?
The frequency of the number of cases is not so important, but rather the changing interpretation and principles on which the law is being based and interestingly people other than Christians are also being marginalised. Universities in particular have traditionally been crucibles of free thinking but lecturers and scientists increasingly fall foul of their own viewpoint.
Whilst we are still some way off true Christian persecution we are certainly not a ‘‘religion friendly democracy” whilst we continue to squeeze the space for conscientious objection in the profound life issues of birth death and marriage. When evangelical Christians are deemed extremists by the Department of Education, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission believe religious people should keep their views behind the temple door and high profile Christians publicly endorse gambling and affirm same-sex marriage you know that the goalposts for Christian biblical interpretation have seriously been moved in powerful places. In this battle of political wills many fear that any Christian resistance may be seen as self interest, that we should just accept these changes,submit to the authorities and bear any injustice to ourselves with grace.
Jesus tells us we will be persecuted and we should be glad, yet on a number of occasions in Acts not only do apostles name and proclaim Jesus but also defend and explain their belief before the religious authorities.
Archbishop Rowan highlighted this as a spiritual problem and seemed frustrated that Christians often feel the need to win God’s argument for him. ”I must not try to be God” he said.
But how then can we separate kingdom values from profound human life values, free expression,democracy and justice? Who speaks up and who represents our faith if it is not us? No mention was made of a specific legal framework to give space for conscience and expression that also enshrines the absolute entitlement for all people to receive public services. A cultural conversation leading to consensus seems unlikely so this is something that politicians will need to address in the near future. Putting incitement to one side, the right to speak about God or any other subject for that matter without falling foul of the law should be accepted as a mark of an open and understanding society and for Christians essential in order to convey the good news of the gospels.